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Potato Tortilla

Potatoes, onions, and olive oil flavour this national egg dish of Spain.

You might be surprised that “un espresso, por favor” and “una Estrella, por favor” sound quite similar when passed through the imperfect filter that is my flawed Spanish. I can tell you that having thought I said the former I was surprised to turn around and find a bottle of one of Spain’s most popular beers waiting for me. At 8:30 AM.

“What the hell?” I thought, “it’s Spain and judging by the age of my fellow breakfast-imbibers one beer won’t be lethal.”

Beer wasn’t a common feature of my breakfasts in Spain last month but tortilla patatas definitely was. Even more than paella or gazpacho this frittata-like egg preparation is the ubiquitous, national dish of Spain. It anchors the simple breakfast of pastries, small sandwiches, and coffee that many neighbourhood taverns use to extend their revenue-making hours into the pre-siesta half of the day.

In our “how many eggs do you want”, maximum choice universe one critical feature of the recipe will be tough to swallow. For the tortilla to be light and fluffy in the middle it is critical that if you’re using a 10-inch pan you use six eggs, no less. If the eggs scale down so should the pan. Or better still, don’t fear leftovers. In Spain tortilla are displayed on bars (and often served) at room temperature and in small portions. And in Catalan Cuisine Colman Andrews says that it’s preferable to serve this dish (it’s truita in Catalan) at room temperature.

Eggs have a very neutral flavour so it falls to the potatoes to carry that part of the effort and I have two helpful modifications. The first is, I’d like to think, vaguely authentic. Instead of salting the potatoes I add a few finely-minced, salt-preserved anchovy fillets to them before they’re fried with the onions. If I’m in the mood for more fish flavour I finely chop three more fillets and add them to the eggs.

My second modification is much less authentic but, I think, entirely justified. Potatoes have an earthy sweetness that vinegar can really lift up. I had a container of leftover vinegar-based potato salad in the fridge and subbed it for newly-cooked potatoes in one of my tests. Definitely a success and if you don’t have the leftovers but want to emulate some of the effect put the par-cooked, sliced potatoes in a resealable bag and splash them with two tablespoons of apple cider vinegar ten minutes before adding them to the eggs.

Tortilla patatas

Adapted from several sources including Catalan Cuisine: Vivid Flavors from Spain’s Mediterranean Coast by Colman Andrews, The Food Of Spain by Claudia Roden, and The Cuisines of Spain: Exploring Regional Home Cooking by Teresa Barrenechea as well as a recently-published recipe from Cook’s Illustrated.

Spain’s tortilla is much like Italy’s frittata and is in a three-way race with paella and gazpacho to be the country’s national dish.

Yield: light main for four or appetiser for six

  • 1 lb (2 – 3) medium Yukon Gold potatoes, halved through the poles and cut into 1/2 cm thick slices
  • 6 large eggs, lightly beaten until whites and yolks are totally integrated
  • 1 small cooking onion, minced
  • 8 TB (1/2 cup) olive oil
  • 1 tsp kosher salt
  • few grinds black pepper
  • In a large bowl toss the potatoes, onions, all the pepper, and half the salt in four tablespoons of olive oil until thoroughly coated. In a cast iron or nonstick 10-inch skillet heat two more tablespoons of oil over medium heat for three minutes. Reduce heat to medium-low add potato mixture  and cook with the lid on for roughly 25 minutes. Stir occasionally. When the potatoes pass the paring knife test remove them to the large mixing bowl and reserve any oil left in the pan.
  • Add the beaten eggs to the cooked potato mixture and let sit for several minutes so that the egg soaks into the potatoes. Meanwhile return the pan to medium-high heat with any reserved oil plus two tablespoons more. When the oil has just barely started to smoke pour the egg-potato mixture into the pan and shake vigorously so that the tortilla doesn’t stick. After thirty seconds reduce the heat to a notch above low and cook for three minutes more.
  • Flipping the tortilla is the critical technique step–both to its success and what distinguishes it form the Italian frittata or the French omelette. Place a slightly concave pan lid that is also slightly larger than the pan (In The Food Of Spain Claudia Roden emphasises that the pan lid is the most important piece of equipment). Hold the lid’s handle with your left hand and the pan with your right and flip the whole operation over so that the tortilla sits on the pan cooked side up.
  • Jack the heat to medium-high, pour in the remaining olive oil and let it heat until barely smoking or until you tire of holding a tortilla-topped pan lid. Slide the tortilla, uncooked side down, back into the pan and repeat the process of shaking, heat lowering, and cooking for three to four minutes.
  • Serve immediately or let cool to room temperature. Excellent with espressso or Estrella.

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